Australian Generosity at Christmas

Caitlin Fitzsimmons has called for Australians to be more generous, and to give to charity outside the Christmas period. She offer some sage advice for all of us, and her points about generosity also got me thinking.

She writes,

“Before we dive into the prolonged festival of consumerism that is the summer sales or turn our thoughts to the new year, let’s pause to reflect on the season of giving.

December is the third-biggest month for charitable giving behind May and June, the two months before the end of the financial year when people are trying to maximise their tax deductions, according to Commonwealth Bank figures.”

Fitzsimmons helpfully points out,

“The lead-up to Christmas is when many charities give a big marketing push to drum up donations. It’s also a time of greater need, especially for organisations that help disadvantaged families in Australia or rescue abandoned pets, for example. But no matter the cause, the need doesn’t disappear in January.”

Fitzsimmons doesn’t want us thinking that we’re a nation of Scrooge’s. She proclaims that,

“The good news is that Aussies are generous year-round”.

So how generous are we?

According to research cited in the article, 2/3rds of Australians give to charity, totalling $4.2 billion. That’s not an insignificant sum, although it in fact equates to approximately $300 per Aussie. Hmmm. Generous? I’m beginning to wonder if Scrooge was an Australian.

Fitzsimmons goes on to offer some helpful practical advice about how to give to charity, and why it’s important for organisations to have knowledge of regular giving rather than one off guilt driven contributions.

It would be interesting to know what the average regular Church attender gives per annum. Based on many years of experience, working for and being a member of several Churches, I reckon that a conservative estimation would place Christian giving at 10 times the national average, and Christians often give without any tax benefits.

According to NCLS research (a national survey across Christian denominations, which involved 10,000s of participants), 66% give regularly, with 20% of attendees regularly giving over 10% of their income. It is important to note that these figures only include financial contributions to the local church, and does not include all the charitable giving beyond. Again, this is consistent with my experience of Christians and Churches.

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The question is, why is the gap between general Australia and Christian Australia so great? I’m sure that some Christians give out of a sense of obligation (although they should not), and others give because of a dubious understanding of Divine blessing (ie the prosperity Gospel). But those two reasons cannot explain the giving that continues in evangelical Churches across the country.

So what is the reason?

My hypothesis is a simple one, and it comes from the Bible: Grace changes peoples’ hearts.

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

When you have come to experience the sacrificial love of God in Christ Jesus, and how the Lord of the universe gave up everything, even his life on the cross, this good news changes you inside and it reorients the way you view your income and the way you look at other people. I’m not suggesting that Christians are better people; Christians are ordinary citizens who face the same financial responsibilities as other Aussies. I am however proposing that there is a difference, and that difference turns on belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The extraordinary gift of forgiveness that is found in Jesus, not only frees people to give generously but installs a joy in giving to others.

I happily join Caitlin Fitzsimmons in encouraging Australians to think about generosity in 2018, and we do so, I also encourage us to consider the greatest act of compassion and sacrifice the world has ever known.

Christmas at Mentone

We want to invite the communities around Mentone and Cheltenham to join us this Christmas.

Christmas often causes us to pause and reconsider the things that we trust and rely on for life’s meaning and happiness. We believe God is good and kind, and in his kindness he gives us many wonderful things to enjoy, and yet none can replace the greater and deeper joy that is found in Jesus Christ. This Christmas at Mentone we are revisiting this superlative joy.

On Christmas Eve we are hosting an annual community Carols. There is a family BBQ from 5pm, with activities for children. The carols service commences at 6pm.

Christmas morning service starts at 9:30am and will finish by 10:20am, leaving plenty of time to prepare for lunch.

 

Christmas at Mentone

 

This Christmas, Churches be clear about Jesus

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Our Christmas tree is up. The smells of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are gently drifting through the house.  Yes I know, I’m not a very particularly strict Puritan this time of year!

I’m also preparing my Christmas sermons and at Church we’re gearing up for our Christmas Eve service.

 

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At least since 1965, we have been preaching that commercialism is the real enemy of Christmas. Remember what Lucy says to her friend Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas,

“Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

Sermons warned us about not drowning out the true meaning with all the food and shopping and decorations. In the last few years though, we’ve changed our sights and declared that the real enemy of Christmas is now secularism. As shopping centres ban songs about Jesus, as manger scenes disappear or are pushed to the side, and as schools are discouraged from singing beyond Rudolph and bells that jingle, our Christmas messages now come with admonitions about those ripping Christ from Christmas.

First of all, our message isn’t “save Christmas”, our message is, “Jesus is Lord, and he came to save”. There is certainly less Jesus in today’s culture, and dislike for the Christian view of Christmas has become mainstream. Also, the two are not completely disconnected, with the former signalling disproval of the latter. However it is just possible that Christianity can prosper without the public holiday

Second, and maybe this is stating the obvious, but should we be getting all our Christmas lights in such a knot over this? Is it the role of society to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Does it make sense that an unbelieving population should focus attention on God incarnate? Why would they? Perhaps we should revisit the Nativity passages to remind ourselves of how Jesus was received,

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:9-11)

I wish more Australians would consider Christ, not only at Christmas but every day of the year. The angelic announcement to the Shepherds remains the greatest news ever to be broadcasted. The proclamation was so astonishing that it was recorded in Holy Scripture, and for over 2000 years people have been hearing the news and millions more will sing about it this year.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

You kidding me? God has come to earth and become human,  entering as a baby? He is Lord and he has come to save? We Aussies are so absorbed in finding little happinesses that we stubbornly refuse to accept the joy God promises in Jesus Christ. It’s nuts, and the nuttiness is only equaled by Churches obscuring this glorious news,

Surely the cult of tradition can be just as great an enemy of Christmas, as is secularism and commercialism. Clouding the message of the incarnation through candles and processions and choirs can just as easily keep people from grasping the reality of Christ come. Don’t get me wrong, I love a well performed Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, but often that’s all it is, a performance. For many Australians still interested in Church during the season, attendance is often driven by the appeal of tradition or keeping grandparents happy.

Sometimes, because Churches want to “build” relationships with our local community (which is a good thing), we avoid too much Jesus and too much Bible getting in the way. We’ll say the necessary words, but let’s pad it lots of other elements that we know everyone enjoys: if we have to have the egg, make sure we add plenty of nog!

Sometimes, because we’ve assumed the old story needs retelling in new and innovative ways, we sacrifice clarity for the contemporary. Yes, I realise that these things don’t have to be dichotomous, but tell me, how many carol services have you attended where the Bible is never read, the prayers are vague and politically correct, and the headline act is a man carrying about with a pillow stuffed under a $75 hired suit?

It’s not the job of channel 9s Carols by Candlelight to preach Jesus. It’s not role of the local primary school to explain Luke ch.2. If they do, fantastic; a truly pluralist society would embrace such, but it’s not their mandate.

It is the role of Churches, and our privilege, to present and explain the reality of the incarnation, and of the death and resurrection of Immanuel. If the coming of Christ is truly good news that brings great joy, shouldn’t we make it our aim to present Him as clearly and passionately as possible? We can still put on the BBQ, light candles, drink mulled wine, and let the kids do a pageant, but please don’t hide the Gospel. If we are not making the good news of Jesus Christ clear, who will?

When you are insulted

Did Turnbull Malcolm speak too soon?

As the Dean Smith Bill was about to be receive its final reading in Parliament yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proclaimed,

“Australia has done it. What a day for love, for equality, for respect.”

It’s attractive rhetoric, and perhaps Mr Turnbull really believes what he said, or maybe he’s just hoping for the best. Whatever is the case, Australia hasn’t disappointed because soon after he spoke these words, trending across Australia on twitter was hashtag Lyle. Even out doing many hashtags dedicated to celebrating yesterday’s decision, thousands of people are sending offensive tweets to Lyle Shelton, using all kind of base language in order to offend. Telling a fellow human being to eat excrement, in my opinion, is shameful. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Shelton’s views or not, it is simply disgusting.

For those who may not be aware, Lyle Shelton is the Managing Director of ACL (Australian Christian Lobby), and he took a key role in the national campaign to uphold the classical view of marriage in Australia.

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No doubt Lyle Shelton is a controversial figure. Not every Christian would agree with everything he says or how he has said it, but his view of marriage is certainly in keeping with the Christian understanding. More than that, he is respectful and gracious when interacting with people, even those who send him verbal parcels of expletives and insult.

This national pronouncement of love and respect isn’t only being directed toward Lyle Shelton, but it has been a sad the trend throughout much of the debate on same sex marriage. Gay and Lesbian Australians have have been subjected to awful mud slinging, and many supporters of classical marriage have had all manner of insult and assault aimed at them. The difference between the two is that the latter has often found public and media support. Remember when Bill Shorten and other Federal members equating opponents of same sex marriage with haters and bigots?

Remember when comedian and Fairfax columnist, Benjamin Law, threatened to sexually assault Government MP, Andrew Hastie? Apparently, it’s not only ok, but it’s funny to make a joke about raping a politician. More humour from Mr Law last night,

“Now I am become Lyle, the eater of shit”

Even before the vote was taken on Thursday, throughout the day’s proceedings, the public gallery in Parliament continually interrupted MPs who dared suggest that Australia is likely to see a reduction of religious freedoms in light of changing the Marriage Act.  It was impossible not to see the irony, while fellow MPs referred to concerns over religious freedoms as “baseless”, the choir sitting in the public gallery repeatedly applauded and cheered in triumph when any MP suggested religious freedom would be reduced.

No doubt there have been many people from across the opinion divide who have expressed their views respectfully and who have been quick to speak against those who are hateful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that our Prime Minister’s words are already destitute. A truly pluralist and tolerant society is able to handle rigorous debate and can avoid jumping into the sewer. Last night and again today, thousands of Australians can’t contain their eagerness to take scoop down and start throwing it at high profiled defenders of classical marriage.

It’s not nice, it’s awful, but should we be surprised? Didn’t Jesus tell us in advance that this would happen? The final vestiges of our Christian culture have up til now served as padding against some of the slings and arrows of social outrage. Yesterday’s Parliamentary “victory” has been interpreted by thousands as justification to knock down those who didn’t support the cause. I suspect that for some, they’re simply letting off steam following months of anger and frustration, although I’m not sure that a justified reason.

While this was unfolding, I was preparing my sermon for Church this Sunday. At Mentone Baptist we are looking at Matthew ch.10. While the context of that passage is mission, and Jesus instructing his disciples how to go about mission and what to expect when they are sent into surrounding towns, it’s hard not to notice some relevance.

Jesus is forewarning his disciples that not everyone is going to welcome them and welcome their message. In fact, at times it’s going to be incredibly hard. People will turn on you, insult you, and even take you to court.

Jesus says, “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). The combination of both qualities is essential: shrewdness without innocence can lead to deceitfulness and unkind methodology, and innocence without shrewdness can lead to naivety or to a foolish bravado. In other words, don’t be stupid and don’t be sinful. Don’t respond to trouble in kind.

While many Australians are today celebrating, many others are today disappointed and saddened by how easily our Parliamentary representatives dismissed the genuine concerns about religious liberties, don’t leap onto social media and say something stupid and sinful. Stop, think, and read these verses:

“8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For,

“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech”. (1 Peter 8:10)

Jerusalem and Gaza, the home for many

As Jerusalem makes headline news across the world today, as so often is the case, my mind turned to a letter written by a friend a couple of years ago. At the time, with his permission, I posted it on the Mentone Baptist Church blog. Again with his permission I’m publishing the letter here, because it brings to the fore an often forgotten group of people who are living in that most beautiful yet tumultuous land. His letter doesn’t concern Jerusalem per se, but it does bring a nuance, and timely theological reflection, to a context which is too often misunderstood in binary ways. It was written in 2014.

 

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G. Athas (2017)

Editor’s note: due to the sensitivity of the issues I have withheld the author’s name. It is written by a Christian friend from Palestine who now lives in Melbourne. I am publishing, with their consent, part of an email correspondence from last week that came about after I learnt that members of their family have been killed in Gaza in recent days. 

 

“It is a sad reality…our loss is for my dad’s cousin, and 2 of my second cousins.  My dad is somewhat bitter about the events dominating the land since 1948 and the gradual ethnic cleansing since, and his family (and my mothers) experienced much sorrow seeing Christians flee – taking with them the true heritage of the land. 

Over the years, we have experienced losses that are hard to understand.  Another of my first cousins was shot in the hip, though is alive, and cannot walk around properly.  He has 2 daughters that he struggles to feed because he cannot work.  Therefore my dad and I have supported him somewhat – including his extended family.  This particular incident happened a few years ago in the previous incursion.  He’s a believer and knows that the Lord has a plan – but he struggles.  They live day by day.  His daughter, my niece, did not really know that bananas were yellow, because she had never seen one in real life.  Another of my cousins died late last year because he was unable to obtain medical treatment, and he was my age, and had 3 children.  The family is in great pain knowing that he may have been saved, but was not.

In Australia and much of the west it is very easy to take essential provisions for granted.  Food, water, warmth, basic amenities, and the freedom to worship as a Church or body of Christian believers.  Such rights as voting, police protection, medical and health cover, or a simple roof over your head do not exist to many in Palestine.  Freedom to move around from suburb to suburb within the nation do not exist.  There is no right to external travel, and no right of return.  

 We pray for Christians to be strengthened during this time.  We pray that they will not lose hope, and that they will not blame God, or Christ for the suffering and anguish they endure at the hand of politics, greed and selfishness – the inherent heart of man!  I know they have not got the answers they so desperately seek and they yearn for understanding and adequate explanation.  It is most undoubtedly a difficult time for them (and us being somewhat helpless here), and it seems like there is no real end in sight.  Every day passes by without offering a hint of improvement.  Another day of this life passes by and it cannot ever be reversed.  I know that this eats away at them because they feel they cannot even enjoy the simplest of lives with their children and families.  Uncertainty and persecution is everywhere.  Many fall in despair and suggest God is only a God of the Jews, and hater of the Palestinians.  They consider God hated Ishmael – whereas instead God saved him in the wilderness, and blessed him bringing into his line 12 princes.  The pain distorts their view on God’s true love and equitable justice.  God is not the racist they often time feel He is portrayed as.

So we do sincerely appreciate your prayer, and love in action.  Nothing else helps.  Earnest and fervent petition to our Lord to hear the voice of His people (Christians), whom He loves.  To incline His ear and see their affliction, and turn and answer them and heal their pain – bringing them closer to Himself.  And while doing so, to bring many more others to His Name that were once lost that they too may worship the One True God.  Selah. Amen. 

 As believers, we know that Jews can’t bring true peace.  Muslims can’t bring true peace.  But the Lord of the Bible can.

 I pray this is the Lord’s will for that land.  But I fear more trouble comes first.”